When this Kenyan dad refused to watch his crops fail, he unearthed the power to provide.
By Deepa Shankaran and Zeddy Kosgei
Robert Mutai can’t forget the day his eldest son, Benjamin, failed the national certificate exam and lost his chance to attend high school.
The 51-year-old Kenyan farmer blamed himself—he knew from experience how hard it is to study on an empty stomach.
As a boy growing up in rural Kipsongol, Robert watched his parents borrow food from neighbours when the maize on their land ran low. Despite his father’s best efforts to keep them fed, Robert and his nine brothers and sisters often went to sleep hungry.
Robert learned to work the land beside his father. But the traditional farming methods that failed his parents would later cause his own homestead plot to wither. He planted with little knowledge of which crops would succeed in which season, or how to protect them from drought and disease.
“It was blind farming,” he says. “You just prayed for something to come.”
Robert began to dread going home in the evenings. He knew his wife would be working by the light of a paraffin lantern, putting their five children to bed without dinner.
“I didn’t know how to face them,” he says. “If you don’t provide, you don’t feel like a father.”
When his son Benjamin failed his exam, Robert realized that unless something changed, the cycle was about to repeat. “I didn’t want my family to suffer anymore,” he says.
In the spring of 2016, WE Villages launched agricultural training in Kipsongol as part of its sustainable development program. Robert signed up immediately, eager for a chance to learn new techniques. He and his fellow trainees discovered the secrets of short season farming, drip irrigation and greenhouses.
“It was the first time I had heard about modern farming,” he says.
Robert’s group founded the Kipsongol community farm, working together on a one-acre field in the heart of the village. As they applied their new skills, this communal land and their own small homestead plots grew crowded with potatoes, cabbage, kale, onions and tomatoes.
One year later, Kipsongol’s landscape—and Robert’s own image of himself—have undergone a remarkable change.
With profits from the sale of surplus crop, the farming team has created a savings pot where members can access loans for business ventures. When Robert invested in a poultry farm and bought a dairy cow, his group took note of his business savvy and elected him as the farm’s manager.
These days, when Robert heads back home, he’s smiling even before he sees his house.
“I’m welcomed with hugs. I know I can provide for my family and in turn, they’re doing well. That makes me want to work harder and harder,” he says.
His eldest son recently retook the national certificate exam and passed. Now a Grade 9 student at Lelaitich Secondary School in neighbouring Bomet county, Benjamin looks forward to campus visits from his father and is keen to learn from his example.
“He encourages me to study hard,” says Benjamin. “My father has taught me that hard work is important. The way he dedicates himself to his work as a farmer inspires me to work just as hard so I can provide for my family one day.”